Professor Aseem Inam: Transforming Cities / Transforming Urbanism

The last keynote speaker for the Urban Land Institute’s Toronto symposium closed off on a philosophical note, beginning his talk with a question that brought the audience back to basics: “What is Urban Design?”.

Professor Aseem Inam, the Director of TRULAB and an Asosciate Professor of Urbanism at Parsons New School for Design, pointed us to the Short Guide to 60 Urbanisms (and There Could be More) and began listing off buzzwords – “tactical urbanism, strategic urbanism, ecological urbanism, new urbanism…” – the urban community had been furiously adopting in recent years, but had oftentimes used carelessly to the point of meaninglessness.

In an ode to our Executive Director, Inam quoted from his pre-symposium blogpost: “Every so often a city region needs a really big conversation. I would like us to deepen that conversation“. When it comes to transforming (more ambitious than just building) cities, the most powerful tool is not infrastructure, design, or money; the most powerful tool is single-handedly our mind. Our collective minds have the power to change not just the physical but the social disposition of cities – from the fine-grained urbanisms of place-making between steel skyscrapers, to actions after “Council adjourned” and before “Call to order”, and to informal micro-collaborations between neighbours down the street from one another. Changing the narrative to one with more hope and optimism, he challenged us to think “What can Urbanism be?

He noted three fundamental shifts in thinking and practicing urbanism since the 80’s, specifically urbanism that was:

1. Beyond intentions: consequences of design

  • Bringing up his work on the Big Dig in Boston, people typically viewed it as one of two things: either a highly successful urban revitalization project that reduced congestion and reconnected the urban fabric; or an expensive government project with cost overruns tagged at $40.6 billion instead of the initially announced $2.6 billion. The third, less talked-about, narrative addressed “now that it’s done, how can we make it worthwhile?” and directed focus on the unintended consequences of projects. In this case, residual construction material was the unintended consequence of the Big Dig, which was used to construct recycled houses. How does an externality such as this, which was beyond the initial scope of the Big Dig, fit into standardized cost-benefit analyses for projects?

2. Beyond practice: urbanism as creative political act

  • Urbanism is not just with formal political institutions and dynamics – we must engage with the everyday politics of the city. We must find who has the power to actually shape cities and understand how that power is wielded. With optimism and passion, he proclaimed that how we revolutionize urbanism as a creative political act is by practicing temporary anarchy. And this is a good thing.

3. Beyond objects: city as flux

  • As the idiom “the only constant is change” goes, he emphasized that disequillibrium is normal and that we must leverage it to create fundamental change. Citing a pluralist philosopher, he motioned that “What really exists is not things made but things in the making… Once made, they are dead, and an infinite number of alternative conceptual decompositions can be used in defining them.” Urban change is accomplished by translating powerful ideas into strategic action, and it is the planning and the becoming of these ideas and actions that we must focus on, not the end result. Emphasis on time is essential in which urbanism is an ongoing verb rather than a definitive noun.

In a sudden change of pace, he revealed that he was an improv comedian and a big fan of Second City. In fact, he often incorporated it into his research design methodology. Elements of improv – horizontal teams, less hierarchical structures, on-the-spot creativity – proved valuable for his city-building studios, where groups were challenged with “What-If” scenarios. The intersectionality of his work was truly fascinating.

Professor Inam closed off the symposium on an excellent note – challenging us to not stop the big conversations that we need to be having once the symposium ended and we returned to our offices, but rather, break down what we as urbanists have learned so far and critically seek unconventional ways to build better cities and practice urbanism. We, at the Urban Land Institute, reiterate his challenge to build a better city and his question to you: what can urbanism be?

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